The Rise of the Singerians

by Reihan Salam

Dylan Matthews, a dyed-in-the-wool utilitarian, describes a small coterie of young professionals who’ve chosen to take highly remunerative jobs in order to donate large sums of money to charities that aim to alleviate poverty and suffering among the world’s poorest, inspired by Peter Singer’s argument that middle-income and more affluent individuals in developed countries ought to do just that:

It’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old Peter Singer envisioning that an article he published in Philosophy and Public Affairs would push people like Jason Trigg into the financial sector. But the 66-year-old Singer of today welcomes the result. In between fending off religious opponents and helping lead the animal rights movement, he’s been doing a fair bit of giving advocacy himself. He has his own group, The Life You Can Save, spun off from his book of the same name, which also organizes at universities and works as an informal ally of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours.

And he embraces earning-to-give as among the most ethical career choices one can make, more moral than his own, even. “There is a relatively small group of philosophers who actually have a big influence,” he says from his home in Australia. “But otherwise, the marginal difference that you’re going to make as a professor of philosophy compared to somebody else is not all that great.”

The article is excellent, and it has already prompted a number of telling reactions. Dana Goldstein, a left-of-center journalist who focuses on education policy, expresses some skepticism:

I’m a fan of some of the organizations, like GiveDirectly and GiveWell, that are loosely part of this movement toward ethical, high-impact giving, with few or no requirements for the individual recipients of aid. Yet I worry about an ethical stance in which any career choice is socially responsible, as long as one pledges to give generously to charity. The fact is, the number of people who choose to make millions in order to give money away is infinitesimal; the ability to donate generously is typically cited as a guilty liberal’s justification for richly rewarded work in fields, like finance, that can be defined by bad social values, such as lobbying for lower corporate tax rates, taking advantage of low-income consumers right here in the United States, and bad labor practices. That’s not to say progressives should never work on Wall Street or for Big Food/Pharma/Tech; indeed, we need social justice-committed people within those fields to argue and work for ethical change. But the ethical behavior must go beyond individual philanthropy itself and toward efforts to make corporations better American and global citizens.

Goldstein’s examples are interesting — she links to a New York Times article on efforts to reduce corporate income tax rates, which Aparna Mathur and Kevin Hassett suggest would have salutary effects on wages; another link references the subprime mortgage crisis, but there are of course downsides associated with denying individuals with impaired credit access to home loans (see Gene Steuerle on homeownership as a means of reducing racial wealth disparities); and finally she references U.S. firms that have been reluctant to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, where the rise of the garment industry has been associated with dramatic declines in extreme poverty. One interesting question is exactly what being a better corporate citizen entails. As a general rule, multinational corporations maintain more stringent health and safety standards than indigenous firms in the developed world. Bangladeshi garment manufacturing firms are subcontractors with limited leverage, and there is a reasonable case to be made that multinationals ought to make more of an investment in improving safety standards. Yet it is hard to dispute that conditions for Bangladeshis working in subsistence agriculture are in many cases worse, and indeed more threatening, than for those who participate in the global economy. Reasonable people can disagree on all of these issues. But one wonders if lobbying for higher corporate income tax rates or calling for restrictions on lending to individuals with impaired credit or encouraging multinational firms to shift production from extremely poor countries to somewhat less poor countries that can comfortably afford higher health and safety standards without additional investment would necessarily be the better way to go. I’m not averse to more stringent lending standards. It is important, however, that we recognize that more stringent standards will involve a trade-off. 

Dylan’s article reminded me of Julian Sanchez’s thoughts on why “wordsmith intellectuals” — Robert Nozick’s term — gravitate towards government solutions to social problems, like entrenched global poverty:

If the best solutions to social problems are generally governmental or political, then in a democratic society, doing the work of a wordsmith intellectual is a way of making an essential contribution to addressing those problems. If the best solutions are generally private, then this is true to a far lesser extent: The most important ways of doing one’s civic duty, in this case, are more likely to encompass more direct forms of participation, like donating money, volunteering, working on technological or medical innovations that improve quality of life, and various kinds of socially conscious entrepreneurial activity.

You might, therefore, expect a natural selection effect: Those who feel strongly morally motivated to contribute to the amelioration of social ills will naturally gravitate toward careers that reflect their view about how this is best achieved. The choice of a career as a wordsmith intellectual may, in itself, be the result of a prior belief that social problems are best addressed via mechanisms that are most dependent on public advocacy, argument and persuasion—which is to say, political mechanisms.

It seems equally possible, however, that a post hoc desire to justify the choice of such a career might play a biasing role. A person without extravagant material tastes can live quite comfortably as an academic or writer, and the work itself is highly interesting and intrinsically appealing. But intellectual jobs of this sort tend not to leave one with the resources to devote large amounts of money to charitable causes without significantly curtailing consumption of minor luxuries: meals out, shows, electronics, vacation travel, enrichment classes for the kids, and so on.

If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily. If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.

This account seems consistent with our current political rhetoric, in which progressive political views are taken to signify compassion and concern for the badly off, while conservative or libertarian views are (progressives often say) evidence of callousness or selfishness. [Emphasis added]

Really, this entire post is just an excuse for me to lift Julian’s content. The individuals Dylan describes seem to believe that private action can do a great deal of good — for example, giving directly to poor people in the developing world might in some be preferable to government-to-government transfers, also known as overseas development assistance. Yet amassers of great wealth who build useful, scalable technologies can also do a great deal of good even in the absence of any benevolent motivating impulse. For example, the spread of mobile telephones in Bangladesh has greatly improved quality of life and income levels. Technologies that first flourished among affluent Finnish teenagers have become a lifeline for millions of the rural poor. This doesn’t mean that people who are other-regarding and those who are not are equally morally praiseworthy. I have no idea. But it is very possible that people who are solely motivated by curiosity and novelty or a desire for recognition could have a much bigger positive impact than people who devote their lives to social justice.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.